Reviewed by Lila Garrott
29 October 2012
We're living in a golden age of English-language children's animation. There has always been a market for television made for children which doesn't insult the tastes of parents, since parents wind up having to watch a lot of kid-friendly entertainment. But the unexpected crossover success of Genndy Tartakovsky's Powerpuff Girls (1998-2004) with audiences of college students in the early aughts showed that there is also a niche for programming made for children, but written as well for the sensibilities of adults who aren't using it as family bonding-time—adults who are watching for themselves. This kind of show seems to be most successful in an animated format, possibly because of the obvious influence of anime and the vibrant visual techniques of Japanese animated classics on Tartakovsky and his successors, and possibly because the tight control over the entire visual field which animation provides allows for a multitude of tossed-off, hidden, split-second, and casual jokes at a much lower budget than similar shows would require in live action. Shows such as Adventure Time (2010-), Invader Zim (2001-2003), Phineas and Ferb (2007-), and the juggernaut My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010-) have acquired a secretly-not-ironic grownup fanbase with a sheen of hipster cool.
Which is why the most tightly written speculative fiction TV show presently running is animated, a cross between The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Eerie, Indiana, aimed at nine-to-twelve-year-olds, and airing on the Disney Channel.
Gravity Falls is set in the titular nonexistent small town in Oregon, to which twins Mabel and Dipper Pines are sent one summer to stay with their Great-Uncle Stan. Grunkle Stan, an unrepentantly sleazy con-man and all-round trickster, runs the Mystery Shack, a tourist trap so blatant that one of its attractions is a bag from which visitors' money will "mysteriously disappear before their very eyes." But the paranormal atmosphere of Gravity Falls is not entirely imaginary. Guided by a book which Dipper finds buried in the Shack's backyard, the twins encounter ghosts, time travelers, cursed waxwork figures, height-changing rays, and a selection of other improbabilities and urban legends come to life.
The appeal of the show lies in its unrepentant sense of wackiness, reminiscent of the surrealist children's writer Daniel Pinkwater; in its awareness and continual undermining of the tropes and clichés with which it is working; and in its continually excellent voice acting. A cast including the brilliant Kristen Schaal as Mabel, the charmingly nervous Jason Ritter as Dipper, and creator and head writer Alex Hirsch in no less than three roles (Grunkle Stan, Stan's sidekick Soos, and the local kook Old Man McGuckett) express subtle shades of emotion and character development without ever failing to be funny. The high quality of the acting is complemented by the show's deceptively simple animation style, which can range from beautiful to grotesque to cute to intentionally confusing without ever seeming to change its folksy, friendly-creepy feel. The character of Mabel is also particularly notable, since she's eccentric in the way that eccentric twelve-year-old girls are actually eccentric, instead of the classic Hollywood style of preteen girl eccentricity. Mabel on occasion wears curly nacho chips as earrings, may have the largest collection of hideously clashing neon sweaters in the known world, and has declared that her perfect soulmate is her pet pig, Waddles. She daydreams about having enough money to buy a human-sized hamster ball. She's also sensible, in her quirky fashion, a character held together by real opinions and interests instead of random lunacy—when kidnapped or menaced, she ends up saving herself and Dipper more often than not. She's refreshing to watch in a television landscape in which girls are all too often marginalized and restricted to a narrow set of behaviors involving boys and makeup.
The relationship between Dipper and Mabel is also refreshing and unusual: they are siblings who genuinely like and love each other. They support each other and are interested in each other's lives. They have each other's interests at heart so much of the time that the times when they do not are moments of genuine emotional danger. This is so peculiar for a television comedy that Hirsch has spoken in interviews about the large sign he has up in his writers' room reminding his staff that Mabel and Dipper are fond of each other, so that they don't wind up slipping back into scripting clichéd sitcom bickering.
So far, as of the middle of the first season, the overarching plot of the show is an emotional arc rather than an action-based one, as the closeness between Dipper and Mabel is threatened repeatedly. The threat is not the existence of the supernatural, but Dipper's repeated attempts to use it to promote himself in the eyes of his crush, fifteen-year-old Wendy (who thinks of him as a friend), and grow up more quickly—endeavors in which he is all too likely to leave his sister behind. The monster-of-the-week-with-occasional-recurring-nemeses format allows both Dipper and Mabel to be involved in any mad adventure that drifts through the minds of the writers, while the trend of Dipper neglecting his sister's feelings grows more and more obvious.
But the tendency for the Pine twins not to find some way of dealing with their nemeses permanently is also growing more and more obvious. Gnomes, time travelers, and the local middle-school-aged sideshow telepath/televangelist (encountered lurking in a club literally swiped from Twin Peaks) all swear vengeance more and more firmly after repeated defeats. This is where the tautness of the writing comes in, and the ability of animation, as previously mentioned, to allow single-frame jokes and complex visual clues. Gravity Falls uses hidden foreshadowing to a truly impressive degree. For instance, freeze-framing on a shot of a newspaper in episode eight, which is about government conspiracies and cover-ups, reveals that: a) writing jokes for cartoons is more important than sleep; b) Mount Rushmore is secretly a set of killer robots shaped like the Presidents it depicts, which will spring to life at their country's greatest need; and c) an evil time-eating baby from another dimension is currently imprisoned in a glacier in Alaska, but there shouldn't be anything to worry about because glaciers don't melt. In the very next episode, which deals with time travel, we see brief shots of a future which has been conquered by an evil time-eating baby from another dimension. In fact, it's the Time Baby who dispatches the time traveler our protagonists encounter. It's not necessary to pick up on this sort of detail to find the show amusing, though I now eagerly await the emergence of Robot Mount Rushmore. This sort of carefully planned intricacy, in which the teasers for the next episodes are hidden in a letter-substitution cypher in the end credits and the time traveler can be seen in the background of several early episodes of the show well before the Pine twins meet him, indicates that it's very likely that the disparate threads will come together in some kind of impressively plotted climax. At this point there are too many possible threads, and too much random information floating around in the show's mythology, to determine much about what that climax is likely to be—except that it will involve the choice, on the part of Dipper, as to how far he will really go and how many people he will really hurt in the name of growing up. (Oh, and probably the Time Baby.)
This leads me to the major problem with Gravity Falls so far, which is that the choice will definitely be on Dipper's part. Mabel is, as described, a wonderful character, who rescues herself and saves her brother and is intelligent and empathetic and deeply, deeply strange. But the show has the tendency to sideline her in many of the supernatural adventures—she has to deal with the side-effects of the discoveries, but it's Dipper who has the book, Dipper who finds the height-ray, Dipper who decides to clone himself (as good an idea as that always is). Mabel's plotlines tend to involve her having to turn down the romantic advances of supernatural creatures, or help her Grunkle deal with the complex world of human emotions, or engaging in an ongoing weird-girl-vs.-popular-girl contest with the nefarious Pacifica Northwest. This is particularly visible and annoying precisely because Mabel's character breaks out of stereotypical femininity so thoroughly, and because the show is engaged in an active, visible, surface-level deconstruction of stereotypical masculinity and its role in Dipper's life.
More than one episode is devoted to the question of Dipper's manliness or lack thereof: in one instance, he attempts to get the Manotaurs, who lurk in a Man Cave and appear when beef jerky is opened, to teach him how to be a man, and in another instance he finds himself committed to a round of fisticuffs with Wendy's emo, possible-zombie boyfriend. In both cases, the show comes down on the side of masculinity as a construct being the cause of Dipper's problems. He's much happier when he's not following the dictates of the hyper-masculine Manotaurs, and his attempt to game the fight by acquiring a super-powered video game character to fight on his side only proves that the entire fight was an extremely bad idea. The show allows Dipper the agency not to follow stereotypical patterns, which is awesome, but it doesn't give Mabel that agency, or take apart her storylines in the same way. When she tries to make Grunkle Stan over into somebody who might get a date at some point, the lesson learned is that he is impervious to makeovers, not that the makeover strategy itself isn't the way Mabel needs to think about things. The incident in which the tiny televangelist Gideon coerces Mabel into dating him is an instructive look at the ways in which people can overrun girls' boundaries, and she tells him off satisfyingly at the end of the episode, but the majority of the episode's runtime is taken up by Dipper scheming against Gideon to get Mabel out of dating him. The intended lesson is that she should handle her own problems, and that everyone thinking that you should date or are dating someone isn't a good enough reason to do so, but we see very little of the process that brings Mabel to realize these things; she remains more acted-upon and reacting than acting.
For a show with such a strong female character so near its heart, Gravity Falls also takes a remarkably long time to pass the Bechdel test. The principal recurring female characters are Mabel and Wendy, and their first few conversations are entirely about boys. Things get better when Pacifica Northwest turns up, as her maniacal speeches are centered on popularity rather than romance, but the two female friends of Mabel's own age have so far appeared in only two episodes and haven't done very much. Wendy has an active social life and a friend group into which Dipper fits—almost all of whom are male, and the only girl among them, Tambry, is a bit part, the least well-characterized among the group, literally never looking up from her phone. In addition, other female background characters can be rather disturbing; Gideon's mother, in a touch of amazing darkness for a show aimed at this age bracket, is shown terrorized and perpetually vacuuming the kitchen linoleum, hoping to avoid her son's explosive and uncontrollable rages and oddities.
That said, there's plenty of time for the show to work on this, and things have been getting better as the season progresses (the appearance of Mabel's friends being a case in point). We can only hope that the show lets Mabel's awesomeness shine through by giving her important choices to make and the agency to make them, as we head for the inevitable Mount Rushmore-centered robot apocalypse. There's no doubt that the show will continue to be funny, engaging, full of depth for those who care to dig for it, and among the few television shows with a supernatural element to use that element for story-based characterization and growth rather than as a simplistic metaphor. As long as that continues, Gravity Falls will be an important and above all entertaining part of the ongoing quiet golden age of animation.